Monday 31 August 2009

Christianity Across Cultures

I’ve been asked by a local church to do a series of three lectures in the autumn on the relevance of Christianity in a multi-cultural society. The church has asked for some initial blurb, and I’ve put together this as a first draft…

This series of lectures will explore the challenges and opportunities of Christian discipleship and mission in the context of our changing political, economic and cultural context. The lectures will suggest that as Christians seek to engage with globalisation, we will be best equipped to do so by understanding the whole Bible, embracing the whole world, and involving the whole church.

1. A Whole-Bible Christianity
Biblical faith has always had a global dimension to it – from the creation of the world in Genesis to the promise in Revelation that all nations will walk in the light of the lamb of God. From beginning to end, Scripture reminds us that God’s plan for the nations is woven into his plan for his people. This lecture will survey how the Bible as a whole – in its ‘big story’ – portrays God’s intentions for humanity and his commitment to bless all nations.

2. A Whole-World Christianity
While Christianity is waning in the west, it is growing phenomenally in the global south. This shift in the centre of gravity is increasingly affecting the way biblical interpretation, the tasks of theological reflection, mission and church practice are conceived and carried out – in greater recognition of the phenomenon of Christianity as a global religion. This lecture will explore some of these implications of Christianity as a global faith.

3. A Whole-Church Christianity
Through the work of Christ, Christians are united to God and to one another in Christ’s church, where the dividing walls of gender, ethnicity, age, economic class and social status are broken down. This lecture will reflect on the mutual belonging that Christians share, with global family ties taking precedence over ethnic and national loyalties – and how this might work out in the life of the local church.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (22/50) – Life in Exile: Peril and Providence

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-second of the fifty emails.

This one written by Mark Coffey. Mark is a teacher of Religion and Philosophy at The Manchester Grammar School and a regular presenter of The Daily Service on BBC Radio 4. An Oxford theology graduate, he has also completed a Master’s degree by research on the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. Mark is linked with the LICC Manchester team, where he has spoken on the theology of work, and has found LICC’s vision to break down the divide between the sacred and secular worlds helpful in his work as a teacher.

Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me… When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.
Esther 4:16

If the God we serve is able to deliver us, then he will deliver us from the blazing furnace and from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.
Daniel 3:17-18

Keeping his head as a young undergraduate enroled in the university of Babylon, Daniel learned quickly when and how the line between integrity and compromise had to be drawn in the sands of exile. Likewise for the young queen Esther, married to the most powerful man in the world (not to mention possessed of a violent temper and a poor track record in married life), there came a time when a stand had to be taken and her identity as one of God’s people declared.

Is it any easier for Christian students today, when parental restraint and church ties can so easily be traded in for the perceived freedom outside the Christian bubble?

And negotiating that line between serving the Lord and Nebuchadnezzar – or Christ and Caesar – doesn’t get easier as life goes on. Workplaces inevitably have their own culture and set of values, where identity can be shaped every bit as overtly and covertly as it was for Daniel and Esther.

Yet with Daniel, ‘They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent’. Even those plotting against him say, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God’ (6:4-5). For all their jealously, his detractors know that he’s not some ambitious young careerist hacking his way up the administrative ladder. They have the wit to see that what makes him tick is his central motivation to serve God.

Like other captives, Daniel and Esther had to wrestle with what God was doing with them. Back home, the mandate to be a light to the nations, a kingdom of priests for the sake of the world, could be a distant implication of their calling. Now conquered and carried off into the world beyond, the question was whether they would learn the lessons of exile and trust the God who went before them.

In exile – as in universities, workplaces and homes today – God’s people are not called to a leisure-time faith which might affect their private life but have no impact on the public world. Esther and Daniel were no doubt both tempted to wonder if the God of Israel’s reach extended into the hostile world in which they lived. Yet hundreds of miles from the temple in Jerusalem, they gained a grander vision of their God.

Mark Coffey

For further reflection and action:

1. Imagine: Daniel and his fellow exiles would likely have been marched as captives into the capital city of the Babylonian superpower through the imposing Ishtar Gate (47 feet high and 100 feet wide) and would have been confronted with a city more advanced in architecture and technology than any in the world at that time, with displays of military victory and imperial ideology at every turn. Think about your own context today and where you see what counts as ‘evidence’ of superior values.

2. How did the exile challenge and change Israel’s vision of her covenantal God?

3. If you sense that your friends and colleagues are content in their disinterest in God, or even angry/resolved in their dismissal of him, remember that ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’ (Gerald Manley Hopkins), and as the Psalmist says, ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?’ (Psalm 139:7). So ask God for eyes to see him at work in their lives, and for wisdom to pick up on conversations with the tact and boldness Esther and Daniel possessed.

John Stott on Impoverished Discipleship

‘I am not saying that it is impossible to be a disciple of Jesus without a high view of Scripture, for this is manifestly not the case. There are genuine followers of Jesus Christ who are not ‘evangelical’, whose confidence in Scripture is small, even minimal, and who put more faith in the past traditions and present teaching of the church, or in their own reason or experience. I have no desire to deny the authenticity of their Christian profession. Yet I venture to add that their discipleship is bound to be impoverished on account of their attitude to the Bible. A full, balanced and mature Christian discipleship is impossible whenever disciples do not submit to their Lord’s teaching authority as it is mediated through Scripture.’

John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Leicester: IVP, 1992), 173.

Today’s daily thought from John Stott, a service provided by Langham Partnership International and John Stott Ministries.

Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 9, 3 (2005) on Nehemiah

Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 9, 3 (2005) was devoted to Nehemiah, with the following essays available online:

Stephen J. Wellum
Editorial: Proclaim the Whole Counsel of God

Mark Dever
The Message of Nehemiah: Rebuilding

Russell T. Fuller
Ezra: The Teacher of God’s Word and Agent of Revival

Stephen G. Dempster
The Place of Nehemiah in the Canon of Scripture: Wise Builder

Peter J. Gentry
Nehemiah 12: Restoring the City of God or How to Preach a List of Names

Tiberius Rata
God as Restorer: A Theological Overview of the Book of Nehemiah

Terry J. Betts
The Book of Nehemiah in its Biblical and Historical Context

Saturday 29 August 2009


Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of how God restored his broken people after they came back home from their exile to Babylon.

Ezra 9:9 sums up the major theme of these books: ‘Though we are slaves, our God has not deserted us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.’

1. One Book
Although Ezra and Nehemiah are separated in our English Bibles, they were originally written as one long work, and are best read as one book. They also contain different ‘forms’ of literature – some personal memoirs, some lists, some family trees, some letters – but they’re one book and they tell one story.

2. Real Events
Ezra and Nehemiah tell of real events. A number of times, they record dates which we can check out with reasonable accuracy. Ezra begins in 539 BC, and Nehemiah ends in 433, about 100 years later.

After Jerusalem is torn down, about fifty years go by, Babylon slowly crumbles, and Persia takes over on the world scene (see 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; cf. Ezra 1:1), with Cyrus allowing subjugated peoples to return home.

Ezra 1-6 tells of a first wave of exiles who return and eventually rebuild the temple (in 516). More than fifty years go by (during which the events which are described in the book of Esther happen back in Persia) before Ezra the scribe comes on the scene, in 458 (not appearing until chapter 7 of the book which has his name on the cover). Then about twelve years later, in 445, Nehemiah comes from Persia to rebuild the walls of the city. The last date in Nehemiah is 433, bringing us pretty close to the end of the Old Testament period.

3. Restored People
Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of a restored people. The books are sometimes used to illustrate lessons about leadership or building projects; and there may be ways in which they are models of leadership for us, in the priorities they set, and in how they go about things. But they have much more to tell us about the factors involved in the restoration of all of God’s people.

There are different dimensions to restoration. Ezra chapters 1-6 focus on the restored temple. But bricks and mortar are not enough, so in chapters 7-10 we see the people being brought under a restored rule. That brings us to the first part of Nehemiah, with its interest again in bricks and mortar: restoring the walls of the city, in the first seven chapters. And then, once again, the people can build a wall around their city, but they also need to build a wall around their lives: the new city requires a new society.


The new temple (Ezra 1-6)
• Return of the exiles (Ezra 1-2)
• Rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 3-6)

The new rule (Ezra 7-10)
• Responsibility of the scribe (Ezra 7-8)
• Reformation of the people (Ezra 9-10)

The new city (Nehemiah 1-7)
• Resolve of the governor (Nehemiah 1-2)
• Reconstruction of the walls (Nehemiah 3-7)

The new society (Nehemiah 7-13)
• Renewal of the covenant (Nehemiah 8-10)
• Restoration of the nation (Nehemiah 11-13)

4. Sovereign God
Ezra and Nehemiah teach us that God is sovereign. While they were in exile, they were promised restoration: Jeremiah spoke about God making a new covenant with the people; Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones coming to life. But it would be God who would do it. He wants to do it because he is a faithful God, a merciful God, a covenant-keeping God. And he can do it because he is a sovereign God.

Friday 28 August 2009

Matthew Levering on Ezra and Nehemiah

Matthew Levering, Ezra & Nehemiah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007).

Matthew Levering contributes the volume on Ezra and Nehemiah to the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, a series self-consciously devoted to theological reflection on the biblical text, written with ‘the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures’ (‘Series Preface’, 13), and which has turned to theologians rather than biblical scholars, ‘chosen because of their knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition’ (‘Series Preface’, 14).

Levering hopes to give ‘a sense of the narrative flow’ of Ezra and Nehemiah, but notes that the commentary ‘makes no claim to be a historical or literary study of the books’ (21). The three distinguishing features of his commentary are:

(1) to employ the template of ‘holy people and holy land’ in reading Ezra-Nehemiah. This picks up an earlier co-written study: Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, Holy People, Holy Land: A Theological Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005 – a very helpful volume.

(2) to read Ezra-Nehemiah in the light of other canonical books, and

(3) to work with a view of history seen not merely as the linear progression of time, but as ‘the non-chronological relationships through which past, present, and future human beings share in different ways in the same realities’, such that ‘the story of Ezra and Nehemiah becomes our story even while remaining their story’ (23). This notion of participating in the history of Israel and the church receives extended treatment in his Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008) – a hefty read, it has to be said.

Six of the Best 3: Books on Biblical Worldview Formation

This is the third in a series of ‘Six of the Best’ books in a particular area related to engaging with Scripture which are first posted on the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The first one profiled books for beginners on interpreting the Bible, and the second one looked at books on biblical themes. This one highlights biblical worldview formation.

The resources listed here discuss the significance of developing a Christian worldview based on Scripture. Although there are plenty of good treatments of worldview from a philosophical and theological perspective, this list is limited to those books which discuss the relationship between the Bible and worldview – particularly how a Christian worldview is shaped by an understanding of Scripture as one unfolding story of redemption. If you’re new to this area, begin with the books by Hardyman or Ryken; any of the others will do if you’re already off the starting blocks and want to think further.

Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (London: SPCK, 2008).
A follow-up to their widely-acclaimed volume The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (London: SPCK, 2006), this provides an excellent introduction to Christian worldview thinking based on the scriptural story of creation–sin–restoration, how it relates to the western story’s move from modernity to postmodernity, and how it applies to key areas of life such as education, economics, sport, and politics.

Julian Hardyman, Maximum Life: All for the Glory of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).
First published in 2006 as Glory Days, this is not a theoretical exploration of worldview as such, but provides an excellent semi-popular and shortish exploration of the ‘worldviewish’ notion that God is as concerned with our family, hobbies, and politics as much as he is concerned with our prayer life, Bible reading, and church attendance.

Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview?, Basics of the Reformed Faith Series (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2006).
A short booklet, and a very useful way into the topic for those new to the area.

Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove: IVP, 1984).
A classic and influential exposition of how a worldview informed by the biblical story of creation–fall–redemption challenges dualism – the separation of our lives into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ realms – with some reflection on the biblical worldview in action.

Michael E. Wittmer, Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
Similar to Hardyman (above) in its ‘whole-life’ emphasis; it takes its cue from the book of Genesis whilst also showing the reach and implications of the entire biblical story for a faith that encompasses all of life.

Al Wolters, Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
This was first published in 1985, and has been a very influential work outlining the creation–fall–redemption schema as the basis for a biblical worldview. The revised edition comes with a final chapter co-written with Michael Goheen which links Wolters’ approach to similar emphases in works by Lesslie Newbigin and N.T. Wright.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Michael Green and Nick Spencer on I’d Like to Believe, But…

Michael Green and Nick Spencer, I’d Like to Believe, But… (Nottingham: IVP, 2009, first published 2005), 122pp., ISBN 9781844743902.

IVP post the introduction online here. In it, Michael Green refers to research carried out by Nick Spencer when he worked at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, published in 2003 in Beyond Belief, looking at current beliefs of those in the mainstream population – those who don’t go to church, those who are unsure about God.

Michael Green notes that while some of their objections to Christian belief were ‘substantial and far-reaching’, many were also ‘disappointingly weak and confused’ (8), showing very little understanding of the Christian faith, but also demonstrating a spiritual hunger. Many of them were effectively saying, ‘I’d like to believe, but…’ Writing from the perspective that Christianity ‘makes sense of our questions, longings and our doubts’ (9), Michael Green tries to remove some of those ‘buts’, the characteristic difficulties in belief…

1. ‘You don’t need to go to church to be spiritual’
2. ‘The church is just too inflexible’
3. ‘Christians are such hypocrites’
4. ‘Religious people are too intolerant’
5. ‘You can’t trust what is in the Bible’
6. ‘Science has disproved Christianity’
7. ‘There’s just too much suffering in the world’
8. ‘There are too many religions in the world for them all to be true’
9. ‘There’s not enough proof for me to believe’
10. ‘Something 2,000 years old can’t be relevant to me today’
11. ‘If there is a God, why doesn’t he just send someone down?’
12. ‘That is all very well, but I’m not sure I believe in God’

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 6

[This is the sixth of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

#5 – Its relative comfort with multiple interpretations

#6. Its significant emphasis on the role of the community of faith

One of the features of theological interpretation is that interpretation of Scripture is most appropriately carried out by, and in the context of, the church.

[S.A. Cummins, ‘The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recent Contributions by Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz and Francis Watson’, Currents in Biblical Research 2, 2 (2004), 179-96, esp. 191-93; Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 66-79, 85-88; Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 79-100; Charles M. Wood, The Formation of Christian Understanding: Theological Hermeneutics, 2nd edn. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 20-29; David S. Yeago, ‘The Bible: The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures: Biblical Inspiration and Interpretation Revisited’, in James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (eds.), Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 49-93. In addition, see (drawing on Paul Ricoeur) Lewis S. Mudge, Rethinking the Beloved Community: Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, Social Theory (Lanham: University Press of America, 2001), esp. 143-87, and Simone Sinn, The Church as Participatory Community: On the Interrelationship of Hermeneutics, Ecclesiology and Ethics, Studies in Ecumenism, Reconciliation and Peace (Dublin: Columba, 2002).]

This is a particularly prominent feature in the work of Stephen Fowl, for whom what counts as a reading of Scripture has to be ‘communal judgments about whether such interpretations will issue forth in faithful life and worship that both retain Christians’ continuity with the faith and practice of previous generations and extend that faith into the very specific contexts in which contemporary Christians find themselves’ (Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology [Oxford: Blackwell, 1998], 26).

[Cf. Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Introduction’, in Stephen E. Fowl (ed.), The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), xii-xxx, at xix: ‘By defining a theological interpretation of Scripture as a reading aimed at shaping and being shaped by a community’s faith and practice, I have at the same time indicated a location where such reading will be most at home. That is, theological interpretation of Scripture will take place primarily within the context of the church and synagogue, those communities that seek to order their common life in accord with their interpretation of Scripture.’]

Interpretation of Scripture ‘should shape and be shaped by the convictions, practices, and concerns of Christian communities as part of their ongoing struggle to live and worship faithfully before God’ (Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 62).

[Cf. also Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1991), in which the authors deal with readers as part of embodied Christian communities who read ‘ethically’, and listen to outsiders charitably. Demonstrating that particular understandings of ‘church’ shape one’s interpretation of Scripture, Matthew Levering (‘Ecclesial Exegesis and Ecclesial Authority: Childs, Fowl, and Aquinas’, The Thomist 69, 3 [2005], 407-67) seeks to augment the accounts of Childs and Fowl with reference to the theological exegesis of Aquinas, showing how Aquinas illumines the approaches of Childs and Fowl to ecclesial interpretation.]

Fowl has re-emphasised the point in a more recent essay:

‘The argument in a nutshell is that theology and ecclesiology should drive scriptural hermeneutics, not the other way around.’

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘The Importance of a Multivoiced Literal Sense of Scripture: The Example of Thomas Aquinas’, in in A.K.M. Adam, Stephen E. Fowl, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 35-50, here 37.]

A similar sentiment is expressed by Murray Rae:

‘Whatever else may be done outside the ecclesia with the various texts that comprise the Christian Bible, the reading of the Bible, as such, is essentially an ecclesial practice.’

[Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (London: T&T Clark, 2005) 131, his italics, and see 131-52.]

One of the entailments of this, according to Fowl is that interpretation by the community of faith may read Scripture in different ways at different times, recognising a ‘plurality of interpretive practices and results without necessarily granting epistemological priority to any one of these’ (Engaging Scripture, 10).

A.K.M. Adam likewise holds that the way forward will be along a path which allows for a plurality – though not a limitless number – of readings of a text, where ‘the legitimacy of an interpretation is determined by the body of readers evaluating it’ (Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006], 60). It is clear, however, that not just any reading will do:

‘The constraints upon textual interpretation do not derive from the nature of understanding, or of texts, or of language, or of communicative intent, or of truth, or of speech acts, but always only from the sundry collocations of circumstances within which we formulate interpretations and judgments… Communities of interpreters approve or discountenance proposed interpretations according to criteria that constitute the community.’

[Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 59, 129-30. See the discussion in 57-65 (‘Twisting to Destruction: A Memorandum on the Ethics of Interpretation’), and 81-103 (‘Integral and Differential Hermeneutics: The Significance of Interpretive Difference’), and 14-16. Adam illustrates these concerns with a discussion of alleged anti-semitism in Matthew (67-79, ‘Postmodern Criticism Applied: Matthew’s Readers, Power, and Ideology’), and he illustrates his differential hermeneutics (which allows for different interpretive outcomes rather than assuming a single, correct meaning) with an examination of the sign of Jonah logion in the gospels (125-39, ‘The Sign of Jonah: A Fish-Eye View’), where the history of interpretation does not show ‘a gradual progress toward the single meaning of the sign, but only the waxing and waning of interpretive trends’ (137).]

On such a view, we are to see interpretation as an exercise which takes place within a community of readers with different interests.

[Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 129-30, and see 59: ‘We approve or reject interpretations not on the basis of immutable laws, but on the basis of criteria that we share with particular groups of readers to whom we are accountable.’ Cf. also Rae, History and Hermeneutics, 140: ‘Good reading takes place… in humble recognition that one belongs within and is answerable to a community of readers extended through space and time.’]

Fowl’s position has been nuanced by others.

[See, e.g., Brian Brock, Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 23-34; Jason Byassee, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 29-33; Cummins, ‘Theological Interpretation’, 191-93; Levering, ‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 440-48; Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 106-13, 123-27; Introducing Theological Interpretation, 85-92; Donald Wood, ‘The Place of Theology in Theological Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, 2 (2002), 156-71, esp. 162-65.]

Vanhoozer, for instance, is concerned that ecclesiology trumps canon, leaving little room for the church to be critiqued by the voice of God speaking in Scripture. Authority lies not in the interpretive practices of the community, but in the communicative practices of the canon.

[Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 275-308 (‘Body Piercing, the Natural Sense and the Task of Theological Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Homily on John 19:34’).]

Treier (Virtue, 126) also seeks to give more space to a normative role for Scripture in the community, that Scripture must stand in a place where it might, if necessary, critique the teaching and practice of the church.

Indeed, we may be grateful for the emphasis on readers and reading communities, but what standing, if any, do the texts have – beyond the standing granted to them by particular readers with particular interests? This is especially the case when those texts are understood as, in some way, the voice of God addressing the church, or understood as part of the canon of Scripture.

Others, too, are unhappy that Fowl underplays authorial intention, subordinating it to the authority of interpretive communities.

[E.g., Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 117, n. 20; Cummins, ‘Theological Interpretation’, 184.]

John Webster cautions against making Scripture captive to ‘the relatively self-enclosed worlds of readerly psyches and habit-forming communities’ (Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001], 45).

Along similar lines, Brevard S. Childs (‘Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 1 [1997], 16-26) notes that ‘traditional Christian exegesis understood its theological reflection to be responding to the coercion or pressure of the biblical text itself. It was not merely an exercise in seeking self-identity, or in bending an inherited authority to support a sectarian theological agenda’ (17).

It should be noted that Fowl does have criteria for ‘the character of Christian practical reasoning’: interpretations must not follow a consumerist model, must not be authoritarian, must operate with the goal of speaking to all Christians, and must be ecumenical in healing divisions among Christians (see Engaging Scripture, 196-206; cf. 62-96).

Leaving aside the validity and usefulness of these criteria (and the question of who gets to formulate them), Levering notes that ‘perhaps the key question… is from where, for Fowl, the ecclesial authority derives its authority’ (‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 443). For his part, Levering is concerned that Fowl does not ‘give sufficient weight to the embeddedness of Scripture historically within particular sacramental modes of ecclesial authority’ and that his proposal ‘may not fully account for the cruciformity, and thus obedient receptivity, required for the Christian freedom of believers, a particular cruciform freedom that should characterize all Christian biblical interpretation’ (‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 444).

Such authority, for Fowl, arises out of relationships and friendships, whereby Christians ‘grant to one another interpretive authority’ (Engaging Scripture, 157). Fowl’s subsequent work on Philippians has explored more fully this notion of friendship (Philippians, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005]).

Levering counters, however, that ‘far from it being the state or the community of believers… who grants the Church interpretive authority, it is Christ who establishes the Church in human history’ (‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 448).

Furthermore, the identity of the ‘community’ remains problematic. Is it the local church, or a collection of churches, or the ‘universal’ church? (Cf. Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word, 58).

Of course, opposition between ‘text’ and ‘community’ may finally be false, since both are shaped by God and part of the economy of salvation (cf. Levering, ‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 451). Fowl has reflected on the differences between himself and Vanhoozer on this issue, as has Vanhoozer – although the latter remains concerned about what he sees as the dangers of pragmatism in Adam and Fowl.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Further Thoughts on Theological Interpretation’, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Four Theological Faces of Biblical Interpretation’, in Adam et al., Reading Scripture, 125-30 and 131-42.]

Some rapprochement between Vanhoozer and Fowl may be necessary in order to hold on to what they each affirm. Along such lines, a recent full-length study sets Fowl and Vanhoozer in dialogue, suggesting a more holistic conception of ‘meaning’, seeking to allow both for the necessity of authorial intention and the practices of the reading community.

[See D. Christopher Spinks, The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (London: T&T Clark, 2007).]

Despite differences of nuance, all involved in the wider discussion are concerned to promote interpretation as a communal practice that is related to virtue, with virtue becoming a way to think how the character of the interpreter influences reading of Scripture, paying special attention to the role of the church and the formation of its members (Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 92-96). It should come as no surprise, then, that those who are interested in theological interpretation of Scripture appeal to the language of wisdom and virtue.

[Esp. David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Treier, Virtue. Wisdom is also the key motif in David F. Ford and Graham Stanton (eds.), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (London: SCM, 2003).]

Theological interpretation aids in the cultivation of virtue which, in turn, aids in the practice of theological interpretation. There is an inevitable circularity here, as Fowl notes: ‘Christians will find that interpretations of scripture have already shaped convictions, practices, and dispositions which have, in turn, shaped the ways in which scripture is interpreted. Not only is it impossible to undo this process, it is not clear how one would ever know that one had done so’ (Engaging Scripture, 7).

Adam (Faithful Interpretation, 155-63 [‘Epilogue: Signifying Theology’], and ‘Poaching on Zion’) uses the notion of ‘signifying practices’ to describe what he thinks should be the concerns of theological interpretation and a biblical theology oriented to theological concerns. Signifying practices is a way of ‘understanding the relation of disciplined technical interpretation to theological, ethical, liturgical, and pastoral practice’, and reminds us that ‘all our interpretive discourses involve matters of practice’ (Faithful Interpretation, 18, 159).

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Happy Birthday William Wilberforce

I’ve just seen that William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759, making yesterday the 250th anniversary of his birth. Happy Birthday, sir!

I did a brief spot on Wilberforce (the transcript of which is available here) in a church service on 25 March 2007, when we were marking the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Abolition Bill.

Monday 24 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (21/50) – The Loss That Comes with Exile: Exiled and Forsaken?

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-first of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

In the days of her affliction and wandering
Jerusalem remembers all the treasures
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her.
Her enemies looked at her
and laughed at her destruction…
‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the LORD brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger?’
Lamentations 1:7, 12

At the heart of the Old Testament story – and arguably at the heart of all human life – is experience of loss. All of us have some understanding of what loss can mean, whether personal loss through death, broken relationships, theft or ill health, or the more extensive losses of war and destruction, flood and fire.

And this exile involved every kind of loss – the loss of men in battle, as well as all the casual and brutal deaths of executions, occupation and forced marches; the loss of routines and practices that provided daily security in familiar places; the knowledge that the land and city they loved, temple and palace, homes and fields, were a deserted wasteland; the loss of structures and liturgies that supported their communal faith and worship.

The LORD is righteous,
yet I rebelled against his command…
The LORD has done what he planned;
he has fulfilled his word,
which he decreed long ago.
He has overthrown you without pity…
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
Lamentations 1:18, 2:17, 3:19

And, of course, loss brings the added anguish of questions about meaning and purpose; why has this happened? Why do the wicked and cruel get their way? Is this judgment or simply blind chance? Do we forgive or cry out for vengeance?

The prophets who had spoken God’s word to the people knew the truth – God had said over and over again, ‘If you obey me… If you return to me… then I will not destroy you’. The God of Abraham, Moses and David, their God, had at last lost patience and was willing to see Jerusalem destroyed, all his promises put on hold, and his people killed, or destitute and enslaved in a foreign land among foreign gods. And knowing that made the loss of exile even more bitter.

But, after the anguish of loss expressed in this powerful book, the writer of Lamentations ends with a prayer of humility and acceptance:

You, LORD, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Lamentations 5:19-22

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. Read through Psalm 137. How do you react to the last verse? Think about the difference between wanting to see the Babylonians called to account and judgment, and wanting to exact personal vengeance. How should this difference work out in social issues of law and justice, and in personal loss and hurt?

2. In Stainer’s musical meditation, Crucifixion, the words from Lamentations, ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?’ are used in an appeal by Jesus from the cross. Reflect on the view which understands that all the loss of exile and pain of judgment are taken into the self-giving ‘loss’ of Jesus’ death, and dealt with for ever in the resurrection.

The Blue Parakeet Study Guide

Some time I may blog my way through Scot McKnight’s stimulating book on the Bible, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

Meanwhile, Barb Murphy has produced a study guide for the book, available here on Scot’s blog.

Friday 21 August 2009

Journal of World Christianity

It’s perhaps already become something of a truism that while Christianity is waning in the west, it is growing phenomenally in the global south. This shift in the centre of gravity is increasingly affecting the way biblical interpretation, the tasks of theological reflection, mission and church practice are conceived and carried out – in greater recognition of the phenomenon of Christianity as a global religion.

The Journal of World Christianity, published by the Center for World Christianity at New York Theological Seminary, ‘explores inter-cultural, inter-confessional, and inter-religious dynamics of Christianity as a world religion’.

Thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation, access to the journal is free, though registration is required. Two issues of the journal are currently available.

The editors – Dale T. Irvin and Patrick Provost-Smith – introduce the journal in the first issue by saying that their mission is ‘to advance the understanding of Christianity in its various dimensions on six continents in both its local and global expressions’ (i).

N.B. I couldn’t download any of the articles using Apple’s Safari, but Firefox worked just fine.

American Theological Inquiry

American Theological Inquiry is a biannual journal of theology, culture and history, formed in 2007. Its purpose is ‘to provide an inter-tradition forum for scholars who affirm the historic Ecumenical Creeds of Christendom to constructively communicate contemporary theologies, developments, ideas, commentaries, and insights pertaining to theology, culture, and history toward reforming and elevating Western Christianity’.

The issues are free to download as pdfs, and they typically contain an interesting mix of biblical, theological, and historical reflection, along with a good section of book reviews.

The contents of the most recent volume – 2, 2 (July 2009) – are as follows:

Patristical Reading

St. Irenaeus
Against Heresies, III:1-6


Paul D. Janz
What is ‘Transformation Theology’?

Glenn B. Siniscalchi
Evangelization and the New Atheism

Ian Hugh Clary
Alexander Carson (1776-1844): ‘Jonathan Edwards of the Nineteenth Century’

Sister J. Sheila Galligan, IHM
Robert Coles: Seeing the Secular in Light of the Sacred

Stephen M. Clinton
Conceptual Foundations for Theosis and Postmodern Theology

J. Lyle Story
All is Now Ready: An Exegesis of ‘The Great Banquet’ (Luke 14:15-24) and ‘The Marriage Feast’ (Matthew 22:1-14)

Richard H. Fitzgerald
On Confirmation

Jack Van Marion
The ‘Ruinous’ Work of the Spirit

Book Reviews

Thursday 20 August 2009

Total Church Study Guide

Veritas Community Church (Columbus, Ohio) has produced what looks like a very helpful 32-page study guide to Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community (Nottingham: IVP, 2007).

I blogged about the book here.

The study guide is available here.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis founded The Crowded House, ‘an international group of church planting networks in various parts of the world’ (from the website), and also direct The Porterbrook Network, ‘a developing initiative aimed at contributing to a wider church planting movement by equipping individuals and churches to rediscover mission as their DNA through training, resourcing and consultancy’ (from the website).

Richard B. Hays on New Testament Ethics

Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperCollins/Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 508pp.

[The following review was written in June 1998 and published on London School of Theology’s website. Although the book itself is now over ten years old, it still ranks as a significant piece of work; everyone who writes at length in the area of New Testament ethics now has to go through Hays.]

Richard Hays addresses head on the issue of how the New Testament ought to shape the ethics of the contemporary Christian church. In doing so, he has written a book which combines clear scriptural insight with a deep concern to relate it to today’s world.

In his opening chapter, he speaks of four operations in the task of New Testament ethics. This fourfold task is then used to divide the book into its four main parts.

1. The descriptive task: reading the text carefully
At this level, we look at the individual New Testament documents, noting their distinctive emphases. For instance, we study the particular features of Paul’s ethics or of Matthew’s understanding of the law or of John’s understanding of love in the believing community, and so on.

2. The synthetic task: placing the text in canonical context
We move on from description to raise the question of coherence among the various writers. Hays suggests a cluster of three focal images to govern our understanding of New Testament ethics, images that arise from the texts themselves: community, cross, and new creation. Community, because ‘the church is a countercultural community of discipleship, and this community is the primary addressee of God’s imperatives’. Cross, because ‘Jesus’ death on a cross is the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world’. And new creation, because ‘the church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet redeemed world’.

3. The hermeneutical task: relating the text to our situation
Even if we succeed in working out what Matthew and Paul (for example) each have to teach about divorce (for example), and even if we succeed in synthesising them together at a canonical level, we still need to bridge the cultural and temporal gap between their world and our world. How do we move from the Bible to today?

Hays here outlines some of the different ways the Bible itself offers modes of ‘doing ethics’ – whether in stating rules, or in suggesting principles and paradigms, or offering examples, for instance.

Hays suggests that the hermeneutical task requires an act of the imagination. When we are trying to reappropriate the message of the New Testament in a world far removed from the original writers and readers, we are necessarily engaged in the process of placing the life of our community imaginatively within the world which is articulated by the biblical texts. We work by analogy. It’s a job of correlating our world with the New Testament’s world. He says, as an example, that that’s what Paul does in his letters, when he compares the Corinthians, say, to the Israelites wandering in the desert; and that provides a model for how we should do our ethical reflection today. Under the guidance of the Spirit, we re-read our own lives into the narrative framework of the Bible, discerning analogies between the canonical stories and our own.

He also considers other possible sources of authority (e.g., tradition, reason and experience) and their relationship to Scripture. He then moves on to appraise the work of five theological ethicists.

4. The pragmatic task: living the text
Scripture is to be embodied in the life of the Christian community. After all the careful exegesis, the careful synthesis, the careful move from the New Testament to the modern world, all is worthless without the test of good fruit. He concludes by looking at how the church today should address particular issues: violence, divorce, homosexuality, racism, abortion.

Hays wants to argue, along with some other ethicists, that exegesis, synthesis and hermeneutics is intricately tied to pragmatics. There is no true understanding of the text apart from a lived obedience in conformity to the text. The value of our interpretation will be tested by its capacity to produce a community of people who truly are transformed into the character of Christ.


Hays has already been criticised for not taking the Old Testament into consideration, or for focusing excessively on the issue of pacifism, but none of this should detract from a truly excellent book, which deserves to be read widely and carefully.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Exploring Biblical Themes (2): Creation

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 3 August 2009.]

To start with the theme of creation is to begin where the Bible itself begins, in Genesis – with God creating the heavens and the earth – and where the Bible ends, in Revelation – with a new heaven and a new earth.

In its very first verse, the Bible identifies God as creator. On the very first page, God speaks and it happens – he creates through his word. But God is also portrayed as crafting creation. We read in Genesis 2:7 that he formed Adam from the dust of the ground, in the way a potter or a sculptor makes something with clay.

And all of it is declared good, as having value – an important reminder that Scripture is not merely concerned with Israel, nor merely with God saving a people for himself, but that his work embraces the entire creation.

So, it’s no surprise that the topic of creation is not left behind in Genesis 1. It becomes a theme which stretches through the whole Bible.

A strong creation theology undergirds many of the Psalms, for instance, where God is praised as Creator – ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’, ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made’ – all sung in celebration – where it’s clear that creation is a result of God’s direct action rather than some accident. Several psalms combine the theme of worship with creation. Because he is the Creator, he is worthy of our worship. In other psalms, God’s act of creation is remembered alongside his saving of his people.

The biblical wisdom literature reminds us that God formed the world through wisdom, with wisdom at his side as a craftsperson, as it were. And that same wisdom is foundational for how we live in the world. God, who possesses wisdom and who created the world through wisdom, gives wisdom back to us for everyday living in his creation.

But neither Psalms nor Wisdom have the future dimension which comes out in the prophets, in Isaiah especially, when God’s work of salvation is spoken of as a new creation. The language of creation is used as God’s people look forward to what God will do in the future, not just what he’s done in the past.

Isaiah understands that God’s work as redeemer, as saviour, and God’s work as creator, are bound to each other. In Isaiah 43:1 we read that the Lord, the one who created Jacob, the one who formed Israel, says: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you’. God redeems because he has created, and in the act of creation is a commitment to redeem. As Isaiah addresses the people of God in exile in Babylon, he reminds them that if God can bring order out of chaos at creation, then he can bring his people back home.

Then, at the end of his prophecy, when Isaiah promises a new Jerusalem, the promise is bound up with the renewal of the whole cosmos; in 65:17 we read: ‘Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.’ The people come back from the Babylonian exile not just to a transformed land and a rebuilt city, but to a Jerusalem which is the centre of a new heaven and a new earth! The salvation of the people is portrayed in terms of a ‘new creation’. That’s the image used.

And that relationship between creation and salvation is highlighted in the New Testament, where it’s focused on Christ – the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the agent of creation, the source of life – the one through whom God made all things, and the one in whom God’s purposes of restoration for the creation will be brought to fulfilment – as John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 all make clear.

So, in Colossians 1:15-20, in language that reminds us of God creating the world through wisdom in Proverbs 8, Paul says that all things were created in Christ, all things made through him and for him – with reference to him, in relation to him. But not only the origin of the universe, also its goal – as God will reconcile to himself all things on earth and in heaven. How? By making peace through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross.

It’s no surprise, then, that in the gospels, Jesus asserts God’s authority over creation – in nature miracles, like walking on water or stilling the storm – the forces of chaos – with a word of his mouth, in multiplying loaves, in cleansing lepers, in raising the dead.

And his resurrection is a reaffirmation of the created order, something which Paul makes very clear in his letters, and which becomes foundational when he writes about sex and idolatry in Romans 1, for instance, where his argument is grounded in the creation narrative – where Paul doesn’t start with what’s going on in the world and try to make Scripture fit that; rather, he starts with Scripture, understands how it sees the world, and how the world functions best according to God’s original design.

All this means that when Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, that if anyone is in Christ, that person is a ‘new creation’, his language of ‘creation’ doesn’t appear in a vacuum; it’s part of a rich texture which is woven right through Scripture. Literally, ‘If anyone is in Christ – new creation.’ Those who are incorporated in Christ as the head of the new humanity belong to God’s new creation.

This new creation is bound up with the promise of the new covenant which Paul has already written about in chapters 3 and 4 of 2 Corinthians. Earlier, in 4:6, Paul refers back to creation when he writes, ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ’.

So, the same God who created all things at the beginning is now bringing about a new creation in the lives of men and women through Jesus Christ. All those who through faith embrace Christ are heirs of God’s new creation.

The new creation which Isaiah looked forward to has had its fulfilment not in Israel coming back from exile but in all those who have been remade by God. If Isaiah 65:17 promises that the ‘former things’ will pass away, Paul tells us here that in Christ the ‘old things’ have gone and the ‘new things’ have come; the old order has passed; the new order has arrived in the reconciling work of Christ on the cross.

Elsewhere, Paul is very clear (in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, for instance) that God’s creation will not be done away with, but will be made new.

And that is confirmed in the final chapters of Revelation with its vision of the new Jerusalem at the heart of a new heaven and a new earth. Christians have become a part of the process of the re-creation of the world, which God will bring about. Deliberately echoing Isaiah’s language, Revelation 21:1 speaks of a ‘new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’.

All this goes to show us that creation is not merely the backdrop for the story of salvation. In fact, it’s bound up with the story of salvation – created, fallen, currently subject to groaning, awaiting its liberation with us, the children of God, new creations in Christ, living in hope for the final restoration of the whole of creation, God’s great work fully restored on that final day.

Further Reading

T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: Exploring God’s Plan for Life on Earth (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 13-73.
Well worth reading for an illuminating consideration of the links in Scripture between creation and the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 1-9.
Like Williams (below), a brief overview at an accessible level.

Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).
The most academic book in this list, offering a full discussion of the topic, though focused on the Old Testament.

Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 147-67.
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from a New Testament perspective, focusing especially on 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 124-58.
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

David Wilkinson, The Message of Creation, The Bible Speaks Today: Themes Series (Leicester: IVP, 2002).
A book-length treatment of biblical passages looking at the beginning of creation, the songs of creation, the Lord of creation, the lessons of creation, and the fulfilment of creation.

H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 13-26.
Like Davison and Juengst (above), a brief overview at an accessible level.

Monday 17 August 2009

Sarah S. Henrich on Great Themes of the Bible

Sarah S. Henrich, Great Themes of the Bible, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), viii + 143pp., ISBN 9780664230647.

A companion volume to an earlier one by W. Eugene March (see here for details), with a third volume promised, this one explores the following themes:

1. Death
2. Discipleship
3. Faith
4. Forgiveness
5. Hope
6. Joy
7. Justice
8. Love
9. Peace
10. Prayer
11. Reconciliation
12. Resurrection
13. Word

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (20/50) – The Judgment of the Exile: Loss and Opportunity

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twentieth of the fifty emails.

The word came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah… ‘Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin… This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. But when the seventy years are fulfilled…’
Jeremiah 25:1, 8-9, 11-12

Destruction of cities, despoilation of land, deportation of people. Then, as now, whole nations are vulnerable to military defeat.

Jeremiah declares the end game of the slow decline of the southern kingdom of Judah (the northern kingdom having been laid waste 150 years earlier), with a series of invasions by Babylon, culminating in the death blow of 586 BC with the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and royal palace, and the forced removal of much of the population.

Aside from the geographical dislocation and political breakdown, the exile was an upheaval that shook the foundations of the very existence of God’s people, calling into question major sources of significance – the land which God had promised Abraham; the throne of David which would last forever; the city of Zion which would never fall; the temple of the Lord, his dwelling-place, along with its priesthood and sacrificial apparatus – all reduced to rubble.

Small wonder that the exile forced deep reflection about matters of identity, grounds of hope, reasons for suffering, symbols of faith. What had gone wrong? Was the Lord too weak? Or had he he given up on his promises? Was there any future for them?

Small wonder, too, that the people responded in ways which disclose the intensity of the grieving experience: shock, anger, denial, guilt, nostalgia, acceptance. In fact, a substantial portion of Old Testament writings flow out of the exile, reflecting different dimensions, articulating different responses – cries of lament, curses against enemies, expressions of doubt, protests of innocence, pleas for forgiveness – all directed to God. And all of which declare that although judgment comes from him, it will not be his last word, that he remains committed to the covenant and his people.

It is sometimes said that churches today find themselves in a situation akin to ‘exile’, largely without privilege, no longer enjoying broad support, in an environment which is indifferent or hostile. But as Israel’s history demonstrates, in God’s providence, a time of exile can prove rich and fertile, where God’s people can live out an alternative lifestyle within the dominant culture, which doesn’t involve abandoning the culture. On the contrary, exiles who ‘seek the welfare of the city’ find their vocation in the here and now of the contemporary world, in the ‘secular’ sphere where the church must necessarily live. Christian identity and mission is forged in the crucible of exile.

For further reflection and action:

1. Read 2 Kings 25, the historical description of what is promised by Jeremiah.

2. ‘Cries of lament, curses against enemies, expressions of doubt, protests of innocence, pleas for forgiveness…’ When things go wrong, which response – if any – is your default mode, and why?

3. How would you assess the view that it is not the ‘monarchy in Jerusalem’ but the ‘exile in Babylon’ which should be the guiding model for contemporary Christians? Does ‘exile’ suggest a way of being the church that is more appropriate to the gospel?

4. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in chapter 29 calls on them to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city’ (29:7) to which they have been carried in exile. What might that look like for ‘exiles’ in the contemporary world? In what concrete ways might you be able do that today?

Sunday 16 August 2009

John Stott on the Bible 3

John R.W. Stott, You Can Trust the Bible: Our Foundation for Belief and Obedience (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1991, first published in the UK by IVP in 1982 with the title The Bible: Book for Today).

See here for an introduction to the book.

See here for a summary of chapter 1, ‘God and the Bible’.

Chapter 2 is devoted to ‘Christ and the Bible’, for which Stott takes his cue from John 5:39-40…

‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’

… from which we learn two ‘profound and complementary truths about Christ and the Bible’ (25):

• The Scriptures bear witness to Christ
• Christ bears witness to the Scriptures

1. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ
The whole passage is concerned with testimony to Christ – not his self-testimony on this occasion (5:31), and not even the testimony of human beings, significant though John the Baptist is (5:32-34), but the testimony of the Father – the works the Father gave him to do (5:36) and the Father himself (5:37-38) – and the testimony of the Scriptures (5:39-40).

‘It was the consistent teaching of Jesus that Old Testament Scripture was God’s Word bearing witness to him’ (27), shown in John 8:56 and 5:46, Luke 4:21 and 24:27.

Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries diligently studied the Scriptures, imagining that they could give eternal life, ‘like getting a prescription from the doctor and then swallowing the prescription instead of getting and taking the medicine!’ (29). But there is no magic in the Bible or in reading it; rather, it points us to Jesus. We do not worship the Bible, but the Christ of the Bible.

Whenever we read the Bible, we look for Christ. The law is our ‘schoolmaster’ (Galatians 3:24, AV) which brings us to Christ; the sacrifices foreshadow his sacrifice; he is the promised king of David’s line, the seed of Abraham through whom all nations will be blessed, the suffering servant who will die for others, the Son of Man who comes on the clouds. He comes clearly into focus in the gospels, and the book of Acts tells us what he continued to do through his apostles; the letters set forth his person and work; and Revelation too is full of Christ.

2. Christ bears witness to the Scriptures
The Scriptures, says Jesus, are his father’s word (John 5:38), authenticating them as ‘possessing the authority of God’ (31). He authenticated Old and New Testament differently: ‘he looked back to the Old Testament, He looked on to the New Testament, but He authenticated them both’ (32).

• Jesus endorsed the Old Testament

Scripture is his Father’s word (John 5:38), which witnesses to him (John 5:39), and cannot be broken (John 10:35; cf. Matthew 5:17-18). Jesus submitted to it as the Father’s word, believed in its divine origin, interpreted his own mission in the light of its prophetic testimony, obeyed its moral injunctions (think of the temptations), made it the ground of appeal in his arguments with religious leaders. But, with him, the time of fulfilment had come (Mark 1:14-15), the era of anticipation over. It is thus ‘inconceivable that a Christian who looks to Jesus as his Teacher and Lord should have a lower view of the Old Testament than He had’ (34).

• Jesus made provision for the writing of the New Testament

Jesus chose apostles to be with him, hear his words and see his works, ‘and then bear witness out of what they had seen and heard’ (34). He also promised that the Holy Spirit would remind them of his teaching, supplementing it, and leading them into all truth (John 14:25-26; 16:12-13). The apostles, for their part, recognised the unique authority given to them (35-36), and the early church understood that after the apostles died they had moved into a post-apostolic era, when there was no longer anyone with the authority of a Paul or a Peter or a John. This was understood when it came for the New Testament canon to be fixed, with the test of apostolicity. ‘Had it [a book] been written by an apostle? If not, did it come from the circle of the apostles? Did it contain the teaching of the apostles? Did it have the imprimatur of the apostles?’ (37).


In summary, ‘we believe the Scriptures because of Christ… our doctrine of Scripture is bound up with our loyalty to Jesus Christ’ (37-38), and ‘any preoccupation with the biblical text that does not lead to a stronger commitment to Jesus Christ, in faith, love, worship, and obedience, is seriously perverted’ (39).

Friday 14 August 2009

Themelios 34, 2 (2009)

The latest volume of Themelios is now online in several formats, with the contents as follows:

D.A. Carson

Carl Trueman
Minority Report: A Question of Accountability

Jonathan R. Pratt
The Relationship Between Justification and Spiritual Fruit in Romans 5-8

D. Patrick Ramsey
Sola Fide Compromised? Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Baptism

Lee Gatiss
The Inexhaustible Fountain of All Good Things: Union with Christ in Calvin on Ephesians

Raymond C. Ortlund Jr.
Pastoral Pensées: Power in Preaching: Desire (1 Thessalonians 1:2–5), Part 3 of 3

Book Reviews


Scripture Union are producing WordLive, which promises to help users ‘experience the Bible in a new way’, with podcasts, video, music, creative prayer, meditation, and group study. It is interactive, updated every day, easy to use, and freely available.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (19/50) – Standing Up and Speaking Out

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the nineteenth of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations… I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 9-10

From Moses to Malachi, from John the Baptist to John in Revelation, the prophets of the Bible bring God’s words to his people. Called by God to speak his words, interpreting events, challenging and confronting, predicting and warning, speaking for their own times, speaking for all times, speaking of Christ, speaking of the final day of the Lord, the words of the prophets come across as immediately relevant, even to the 21st century.

They challenged the rich and complacent – those ‘who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, who practise deceit with false balances’ (Amos). They will be judged; the Lord will ‘fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty’.

They challenged the priests and religious leaders – ‘and now, O priests, if you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, then I will send the curse on you. You have caused many to stumble’ (Malachi). They will be judged, and Jesus said, ‘woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, for you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven’.

They challenged kings. Nathan confronted David – ‘Thus says the Lord, I anointed you king over Israel, yet you have despised the word of the Lord to do what is evil in his sight’. Elijah confronted Ahab – ‘Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you’.

They constantly repeated God’s commands against injustice and idolatry and his calls for social, economic and political righteousness. They warned Israel and Judah of the judgment that would come through foreign conquest and exile. They affirmed God’s promises and spoke of the final day of the Lord, when Jerusalem’s ‘vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch’ (Isaiah). And they also spoke of grace, repentance and forgiveness. Through Jeremiah the Lord says of his people, ‘They shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more’ (31:34).

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. In Acts 2:17, Peter quoted the prophecy of Joel, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh… even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit; and they shall prophesy.’ Peter said that was what was happening that day of Pentecost. What should be the role of prophecy in the church today?

2. To what extent are Christians called, like the Old Testament prophets, to challenge religious leaders and political rulers when God’s laws are flouted, when injustice and economic exploitation flourishes? How do we recognise that call and support those who take this on?

3. Read Isaiah 65:17-25 and Revelation 21:1-4, 22-27, and rejoice that in the end judgment is swallowed up in glory.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart on Ezra-Nehemiah

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 113:

‘Ezra-Nehemiah advances the biblical story by describing how the necessary reforms in Jerusalem were set in motion, which were later to serve as the basis for the Judaism out of which Jesus and the early church emerge.’

Tuesday 11 August 2009

W. Eugene March on Great Themes of the Bible

W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), viii + 143pp., ISBN 9780664229184.

Another book in the ‘brief overview of Bible themes’ genre, this one is the first of three projected volumes which will look at thirty-nine themes that span the Old and New Testaments. The thirteen themes covered here are:

1. God
2. Covenant
3. Humanity
4. Sin
5. Law
6. Messiah
7. Spirit
8. Grace
9. Salvation
10. People of God
11. Worship
12. Service
13. Reign of God

Bible Society

Bible Society recently relaunched their website, which is much improved on the old one. It contains hundreds of helpful resources related to the Bible, many of which are freely available to download. Well worth checking out.

Martin J. Selman on 1 and 2 Chronicles

Martin J. Selman, ‘Chronicles’, in T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (eds.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 188-95.

Part Two of this dictionary contains articles on the main biblical sections and books, discussing the theology of the book under consideration as well as its links to the rest of Scripture. Martin Selman, who also wrote the Tyndale Commentary on Chronicles (1994), contributes the entry on Chronicles.

Selman begins from the premise of the unity of the present form of Chronicles as the basis for theological interpretation (188), and stands with those who view it primarily as a theological work (recognising ‘that all biblical history is to some extent theological in nature’, 189).

A theology of history
The Chronicler’s interpretation of history highlights three areas where God’s activity was significant:

(1) ‘Israel’s history from beginning to end belongs in the context of God’s purposes for the whole world’ (189), providing a challenge to a narrow theology.

(2) The ‘Chronicler is especially concerned with the monarchy’ (189).

(3) The ‘perspective on Israel’s past from which the Chronicler writes is that of the exile’ (189).

A theology of the word of God
Selman holds that Chronicles is, in effect, ‘a commentary on much of the rest of the OT’, seeking to interpret it from beginning to end, showing the relevance of Scripture for his own period (189).

(1) The Law – of special importance as the foundation for the life of God’s people, emphasising the Torah as the living word of God (2 Chron. 17:9; 19:4-11; 35:26, etc.) and as providing a pattern for the worship of God (in the pattern of the tabernacle, the activities of worship, etc.).

(2) The Prophets – using the underlying narrative from 2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, with the temple becoming the focus of the people’s relationship with God, and with prophecy as ‘one of the main means by which Israel’s history is interpreted in Chronicles’ (190), with the prophets calling Israel to repentance.

(3) The Psalms – important ‘in illustrating Israel’s worship in the temple’ (191), quoted at key points in the narrative when the ark is installed in Jerusalem and when the temple is built.

All this, according to Selman, ‘provides a highly important contribution to the developing theology of Scripture in the OT’ (191).

• The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are assumed to ‘exercise authority in the life of God’s people’ (191).

• The written nature of the material and the assumption of its familiarity ‘suggests it was already functioning as Scripture’ (191).

• The Chronicler ‘assumes that this received Scripture has already been considerably integrated’ (191).

• Chronicles ‘supplies considerable evidence that this written Scripture was capable not only of application but also of further development’, the word of God being ‘both authoritative and dynamic, written and oral’ (191).

The central theme of Chronicles
Although different themes have been suggested (seeking God, Israel’s restoration, atonement), Selman sides with those who see the work as dominated by the Davidic monarchy and Solomon’s temple (192). This is seen not least in the structure of the work, with the central section devoted to the united monarchy (1 Chron. 10 – 2 Chron. 9), and with two passages dominating the central section: the promise of the Davidic covenant (1 Chron. 17) and Solomon’s dedication of the temple (2 Chron. 6-7).

The chief feature in the presentation of both kings is their association with the temple. Selman disagrees with those who argue that they are presented in a whitewashed idealised way since some positive as well as negative features are omitted, and the Chronicler even occasionally ‘magnifies their failures’ (193) (e.g., 1 Chron. 13:9-13; 21:1-22:1; 2 Chron. 10:1-14).

‘The Chronicler’s greatest interest is in fact in God’s covenant promises to David and Solomon, which he sees as initially fulfilled in Solomon’s succession and the dedication of the temple’ (193).

The Davidic covenant is particularly significant, with three features highlighted: (1) ‘God’s promises can be realized through obedience’; (2) ‘the temple becomes the chief symbol of the Davidic covenant’; (3) ‘the Davidic promises are permanent’ (193).

Monday 10 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (18/50) – For the Sake of David

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the eighteenth of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

What share do we have in David? What part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!
1 Kings 12:16

It is forty years since David’s death. In spite of his achievements, Solomon’s idolatry has brought down on him and the kingdom the judgment of God (1 Kings 11:9-13).

As the kingdom falls apart, we find ourselves asking ‘Who is in control?’ Even before Solomon’s death, Jeroboam is encouraged to rebel by a prophecy: ‘I [God] am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand, and give you ten tribes’ (11:31).

On his father’s death, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, is crowned king. Jeroboam tries to strike a deal with him but is ruthlessly rejected. The Israelites respond with an immediate declaration of independence: ‘To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!’ But this, we read, ‘was from the Lord, to fulfil the word the Lord had spoken to Jeroboam…’

Thus, the kingdom is divided, Jeroboam ruling the north (Israel) and Rehoboam the south (Judah). Both ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’. The Bible never suggests that God’s sovereignty nullifies human responsibility. Both nations are ultimately judged.

Israel, conquered by the Assyrians, is dispersed in 722 BC, never to be restored. But the story of Judah is different. ‘For the sake of David my servant’, God says, the southern kingdom will have a future (11:32, 36), but nevertheless, their constant rebellion leads them, too, into exile, over a century later.

But the promise of return echoes through the declarations of the prophets. Ezekiel prophesies (37:15-28) that it is as one nation that the Jews will return from exile, and ‘my servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd’. In spite of the return of Judah to Jerusalem, the true fulfilment of this prophecy begins with the coming of ‘great David's greater Son’*. We immediately think of Jesus’ words (John 10:16): ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also… and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.’

As it was for David’s sake that God had mercy on Israel, so it is for Jesus’ sake that he has mercy on us. We cannot earn his favour – it is pure sovereign grace. But we are still responsible for working out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12).

* From James Montgomery’s hymn, ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’.

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. As we think about the Israelites’ repeated disobedience and its consequences, do we sometimes presume on God’s grace? How do we understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in our own lives?

2. Jesus said, ‘A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand’ (Matthew 12:25). Do we too readily accept the divisions in the church today? What can we do?

John Stott on the Church and the Word

‘The dependence of the church on the Word is not a doctrine readily acceptable to all. In former days of Roman Catholic polemic, for example, its champions would insist that “the church wrote the Bible” and therefore has authority over it. Still today one sometimes hears this rather simplistic argument. Now it is true, of course, that both Testaments were written within the context of the believing community, and that the substance of the New Testament in God’s providence… was to some extent determined by the needs of the local Christian congregations. In consequence, the Bible can neither be detached from the milieu in which it originated, nor be understood in isolation from it. Nevertheless, as Protestants have always emphasized, it is misleading to the point of inaccuracy to say that “the church wrote the Bible”; the truth is almost the opposite, namely that “God’s Word created the church”. For the people of God may be said to have come into existence when his Word came to Abraham, calling him and making a covenant with him. Similarly, it was through the apostolic preaching of God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost that the people of God became the Spirit-filled body of Christ.’

John R.W. Stott, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), 109.

Today’s daily thought from John Stott, a service provided by Langham Partnership International and John Stott Ministries.

Leo G. Perdue, Robert Morgan, and Benjamin D. Sommer on Biblical Theology

Leo G. Perdue, Robert Morgan, Benjamin D. Sommer, Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation, Library of Biblical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), viii + 337pp., ISBN 9780687341009.

I blogged about this series – Library of Biblical Theology – here. The lead volume has finally appeared, containing the following essays:

1. Benjamin D. Sommer
Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically

2. Leo G. Perdue
Old Testament Theology Since Barth’s Epistle to the Romans

3. Robert Morgan
New Testament Theology in the Twentieth Century

4. Leo G. Perdue
Hermeneutics: The Bible and the Quest for Theological Meaning

The essays are lengthy and look substantial, and I’m sure will be very good, though I had been hoping for a more collaborative treatment and statement of the issues.

The Preface reminds us again of the general failure of biblical studies scholars and theologians to engage with one another’s work in significant ways, and of the goal of the series ‘to bring the worlds of biblical scholarship and constructive theology together into an interpretative relationship’ (vii).

This particular volume promises seeks to recognise ‘the increasing emphasis placed on the role of the reader in the interpretation of texts’ alongside the continual realisation that ‘the historical context and understanding of scriptural texts cannot be ignored in seeking to listen to voices from the past that have helped shape theological understandings through the centuries’ (viii).

Sunday 9 August 2009

Allen R. Guenther on Kings and Chronicles

Allen R. Guenther, ‘Kings and Chronicles: Interpreting Historical Interpretation’, Direction 11, 2 (1982), 4-15.

Against approaches which would reduce Kings and Chronicles to a single account through artificial harmonisation, Guenther argues that they are ‘written from different perspectives and only when the church affirms both accounts as historical interpretation will these books begin to serve as revelation for the nurture and proclamation of the church’ (5).

He seeks to illustrate through a comparative study of Asa’s reign (1 Kings 15:9-24; 2 Chronicles 14:1-16:14), highlighting in turn the perspective of Kings (the Deutronomist) and Chronicles (the Chronicler).

The perspective of Kings
On this view, Kings is part of the larger history told in Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, which is introduced by Deuteronomy and in which the themes and perspectives of Deuteronomy dominate – the Sinai covenant and Israel’s obligation to observe the commands, with the promise of blessing if they do and punishment if they do not. The history of Israel is traced from the Sinai covenant to the Babylonian exile.

With the exception of Josiah, even the greatest leaders (including David) were a mixture of godliness and and disobedience, with judgment eventually falling on both Israel and Judah, even while the promises to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 30:1-10) still provide some hope (8-10).

The perspective of the Chronicler
The Chronicler traces biblical history from Adam to the end of the Babylonian exile. After the initial genealogies, the history ‘is restricted to the Davidic line and the house of Judah’, the scope of the history suggesting that the Chronicler ‘is concerned to demonstrate the continuity of God’s redemptive activity from creation to the time of restoration following the Babylonian exile’ (10). The accounts of David and the temple are central (10-11).


Each account needs to be read for its particular perspective.

Each reminds us that God’s word is addressed to people at a given time and place, coming ‘in concrete circumstances to real people to build faith according to specific needs’ (14). ‘When we perceive (wherever possible) the circumstances and needs of that faith-community, the texts can then be directed more profitably to specific contemporary faith-communities in our world’ (14).

‘Chronicles would speak more powerfully to a struggling, leaderless community than would Kings. On the other hand, Kings forces one to look for patterns of life and faith which may be cumulatively destructive or constructive; it provides a more powerful message of a complacent church, relying on the historical elective and redemptive experiences of God’ (14).

‘When we move beyond the concern to harmonize these histories to a concern for their meaning, we discover more inclusive and richer understandings of the truths of God. And we can then appropriately apply those truths to ourselves today’ (15).

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (17/50) – Words for the Wise

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the seventeenth of the fifty emails.

A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies…
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar…
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard…
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy…
She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes…
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue…
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:10-31

The major turns in the biblical story – God’s promise to Abraham, his redemption from slavery, his covenant with the people, the giving of the law, the establishment of the monarchy, the building of the temple – are conspicuous by their absence in the biblical wisdom literature.

As it turns out, wisdom is rooted further back – in creation – grounded in the orderly regulation of the world by the creator God, even while acknowledging (as Job and Ecclesiastes do in different ways) that there are great mysteries woven into the fabric of life in God’s world. Wisdom is not, therefore, a ‘secular’ alternative to other, more ‘sacred’ parts of the Bible. Nor is it surprising that Israel is able to engage with surrounding cultures, gleaning insight where they reflect the truth that is God’s truth, because of the recognition that he is the source of wisdom.

This is made clear in the opening of the book of Proverbs, where it is said that ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ (1:7). If wisdom literature is concerned with living wisely in God’s world, then fear of the Lord is the first principle of such a life, where wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in deep reverence of the Lord God; where wisdom is not merely intellectual capacity, but linked with discipline and discernment, shrewdness and skill; where wisdom produces a certain kind of character and demonstrates itself in particular sorts of actions. And, what’s more, which operates in every sphere of life – at home, at the city gate, in the market square – and which embraces the daily rhythms of eating, drinking, working, sleeping.

This is powerfully portrayed in the Bible’s fullest description of the regular activity of an ‘ordinary’ person – the woman who ‘fears the Lord’ (31:30), whose wisdom is demonstrated in her everyday activities of being a wife to her husband, a mother to her children, providing for her family, managing her household, engaging in international trade in cloths and textiles, negotiating the purchase of fields, looking out for the poor.

Insofar as the woman is a picture of wisdom itself, matching the portrayal of ‘woman wisdom’ in earlier chapters of Proverbs, it’s applicable to men as much as to women, setting out the ideal of practical wisdom, embracing actions and speech, worked out concretely in the kitchen, on the field, at the desk, wherever God has called us.

For further reflection and action:

1. Read and reflect on the whole of Proverbs 31:10-31, perhaps pausing to consider how the ‘fear of the Lord’ might inform your own activities today.

2. How ‘air-brushed’ is the woman of Proverbs 31? Is she a role model for all women everywhere or a male fantasy of the perfect spouse, placing yet more unrealistic pressure on women? Or something else?

3. Song of Songs is often held to belong to the Bible’s wisdom literature. What might this suggest about how the poems should be interpreted?

4. If wisdom literature looks back to creation, it also looks forward to Christ who is the wisdom of God (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30). If Christ is the wisdom of God, what difference might that make, or what added insights might it provide, to our reading of Old Testament wisdom literature?